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circa: Unknown. Bought on street in NYC 1987.

circa: Unknown. Bought on street in NYC 1987.

Discovering an ancestor’s name on a passenger list not only provides a vital link to the old country, but also brings to mind the uncertain journey and many sacrifices our ancestors must have made as they left their home, possessions, friends, and family for a new life in a new land. However, poor handwriting, misspelled or changed names, and a lack of information, can often make this a daunting task. Try one or more of these five expert strategies to locate your immigrant ancestor’s arrival record.

1.  Narrow Down the Arrival Date

A variety of records available in the United States may make it possible to narrow down your ancestor’s arrival date, if not the actual date of immigration or arrival. The 1930, 1920, 1910 and 1900 U.S. federal census, for example, recorded the year of immigration, when applicable. For earlier census records, the place of birth may prove useful in narrowing down the date of immigration in situations where some children were born in the United States and others in the old country. Obituaries may detail when an immigrant ancestor arrived in this country, or at least how many years they have lived here. Naturalization records created after Sept 1906 provide an immigrant’s arrival details, including both the date and port of arrival.

2.  Search Multiple Points of Entry

While you may have always been told that your ancestor came through Ellis Island, many immigrants arrived through other U.S. ports. Some also chose to arrive first through Canada, which often provided cheaper passage. Immigrants may also have not necessarily arrived at the port closest to where they eventually settled. If you’re looking for someone who settled in Pennsylvania, for example, then the port of Philadelphia may seem the obvious choice. However, the immigrant may have just as likely arrived in New York or Baltimore.

Some immigrants also entered the U.S. more than once. It was common for men to arrive in the country to find work and get settled for a year or two prior to the arrival of their wife and children. Many immigrants (this was especially common for Italian emigrants, for example) came to the U.S. for work and then went home for a time—repeating this cycle multiple times.

3.  Check out the Relatives

When you can’t find the person you’re really hoping to find, search for parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors—they may have either traveled with your ancestor, or their records may provide important clues to his origins. Relatives or neighbors who didn’t travel with your ancestor may also be named on their passenger arrival manifest. U.S. passenger lists after early 1892 often include a column for final destination in the United States, which typically includes the name of a relative or friend living there. After 1907, passenger manifests also record the name and address of the nearest friend or relative in the old country. If you are unable to find an immigrant ancestor by searching for their name, use the advanced search tools available at to search by the town of origin, or the name of the friend or relative they were joining.

Still can’t find them? Many immigrants traveled in groups or settled among friends from their town back in the old country. Looking for arrival records of close family friends and neighbors from your immigrant ancestor’s new community may reveal his place of origin, or lead you to his arrival record.

4.  Play the Name Game

It’s a myth that officials at Ellis Island “changed” immigrants’ names, but it wasn’t uncommon for newly-arrived Americans to adopt an Americanized name upon arrival or shortly thereafter. When searching for your immigrant ancestor, consider ethnic equivalents of your ancestor’s first name (e.g. Heinrich for Henry, Lorenz for Lawrence or Erzsébet for Elizabeth). New Americanized surnames are equally common (see Tips for Finding Alternate Surname Spellings and Variations). Sometimes married females may be found traveling under their maiden name.

To get past handwriting and spelling variations, try a wildcard search in which you use asterisks to replace one or more letters in a name. One popular strategy is to use a wildcard in place of each vowel. For Eastern European names, wildcards can be effective for replacing certain consonant clusters. Or forego the surname and search using other known details about your ancestor, such as birthplace, age, gender, and occupation.

5.  Go to the Source

Immigrant records were created at both ends of the journey, so when you can’t find your ancestor coming into the U.S., it still may be possible to find them leaving the old country. Passenger departure lists can sometimes be difficult to use, as they are usually in the language of the country of departure, require you to first identify the possible port of departure, and may not be easy to access. However, a growing number have been indexed and/or published online, including departure lists from the UK (most after 1890), Hamburg, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Unfortunately, the records of individuals who emigrated through many other ports, such as Bremen, Le Havre, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Antwerp have either been destroyed or lost, although a few scattered records from these ports have survived.